By Dave Begel Contributing Writer Published Jan 21, 2017 at 11:03 AM

The contrast between the inauguration of a president who wants to ban Muslims and a Pulitzer Prize winning play about Islam is almost too obvious to resist.

The play "Disgraced" by Ayad Akhtar opened at The Rep Friday night to a rapt audience enthralled by one of the most powerful plays of this or any other season. It’s an evening designed to engender deep, and perhaps troubling, thought, and it succeeds with punch.

Akhtar's play has been produced all over since its debut in 2013, and there is a clear reason as the western world tries to deal with a religion that is vilified for its terrorist ties. It’s as if those of us who live in the west – especially in the United States – are being held hostage by a religion that has no interest in holding anyone hostage.

At its most base, this play is about tribalism versus patriotism. For many, that contest is an easy one. Patriotism, for example, has become simplistic and jingoistic, and it has drawn lines around Muslims, Mexicans and people who don’t look like the rest of us.

Bu Akhtar’s play is so much more than a simple snapshot of two sides of the same coin. It is complex, in both the relationships of the four characters, and it captures the complexities of any discussion of religious tolerance, identity profiling and painful capitulation.

The story concerns two couples: Amir and Emily, and Isaac and Jory.

Amir (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) is a Pakistani born in the United States and now works as a high powered mergers and acquisition lawyer in a large, Jewish law firm. Amir has assimilated, having changed his name from Abdullah to the more common Kapoor and getting a new social security number to go along with his new identity.

Emily (Janie Brookshire) is a white woman of good breeding who works as an artist. The focus of her art is rooted in Islamic tradition, and she holds dear both the faith and convention of Islam. She is disquieted by the rush away from the faith by her husband.

This couple is expanded by the presence of Abe (Imran Sheikh), Amir’s nephew and a young man full of the kind of exuberant and single-minded patriotism reserved for the young. His patssionate allegiance to a local Imam and his Pakistani roots is a cause of tension between Amir and Emily.

Isaac (Jason Babinsky) is a Jewish art dealer who is the object of Emily's seduction in order to get him to put her art in his next show. He arrives at dinner to tell her that she has made it. Isaac is a man who is critical of the State of Israel, especially its militarism, and he further sullies his religion by loving pork.

Jory (Austene Van) is black and a lawyer who works with Amir. She is colorful and strong, having pulled herself out of a dire upbringing to become wealthy and the object of recruitment by other big firms. As she says, in a battle between justice and order in the world, she picks order.

The dinner conversation ranges from the banal chit cat of appetizers into a mixed salad that explodes slowly but surely amid a mixture of fennel and baby artichokes on their plates.

It would be overly simplistic to try and categorize the arguments that come from each of the four. Nobody at this table is any one thing. They are all made up of different parts, different ideas, different prejudices and different pains in life all of which lead to unexpected and surprising proclamation.

The clearest conflict is between Amir and Isaac, and through it all, the Quran is pivotal evidence for the beliefs of both men. Isaac quotes it, and Amir tries to explain what the holy book really means.

AMIR: The Quran is about tribal life in a seventh-century desert. The point isn’t just academic. There’s a result to believing that a book written about life in a specific society fifteen hundred years ago is the word of God: You start wanting to recreate that society.

After all, it’s the only one in which the Quran makes any literal sense.

That’s why you have people like the Taliban. They’re trying to recreate the world in the image of the one that’s in the Quran. Here’s the kicker. And this is the real problem: It goes way deeper than the Taliban. To be Muslim – truly – means not only that you believe all this. It means you fight for it, too. Politics follows faith? No distinction between mosque and state? Remember all that. So if the point is that the world in the better place than this world, well, then back. Quran was a let’s go. Let’s stone adulterers. Let’s cut off the hands of thieves. Let’s kill the unbelievers. And so, even if you’re one of those lapsed Muslims sipping your after-dinner scotch alongside your beautiful white American wife - and watching the news and seeing folks in Middle East dying for values you were taught were purer - and stricter - and truer ... you can’t help but feel just a little a bit of pride. Pride? Yes. Pride.

ISAAC: Amir. Did you feel pride on September 11th?

AMIR: If I’m honest ... yes.

Akhtar’s play almost seems to owe a debt to "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf," by Edward Albee. The disintegration of this dinner and these two couples moves into the most horrendous and vicious kind of discussion that uncovers old wounds and rips the scabs off of recent ones. It’s painful to watch but the kind of evening that only live theater can deliver.

With marvelous performances by the cast under the sublime direction of Marcela Lorca, "Disgraced" should be a must see for everyone who watched or didn’t watch the folderol of inauguration day for Donald Trump. Lorca deserves immense credit for letting this play proceed at a natural rapid pace. There is little room for breath in these performances, and they're all the more real because of it.

The impact is that the audience is forced to keep up with the pace, allowing for no long moments of reflection or internal consideration. Akhtar obviously wants his audience to make judgements based on the whole of these characters, not on a single idea or revelation. 

If you believe that sunlight is the best disinfectant (Justice Louis Brandeis)  for bigotry and hatred and that the fact that denial of heritage is the only pathway to Americanism, then this is an evening to be celebrated.

"Disgraced runs through Feb. 12 and information on tickets and showtimes is available here.

Dave Begel Contributing Writer

With a history in Milwaukee stretching back decades, Dave tries to bring a unique perspective to his writing, whether it's sports, politics, theater or any other issue.

He's seen Milwaukee grow, suffer pangs of growth, strive for success and has been involved in many efforts to both shape and re-shape the city. He's a happy man, now that he's quit playing golf, and enjoys music, his children and grandchildren and the myriad of sports in this state. He loves great food and hates bullies and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

This whole Internet thing continues to baffle him, but he's willing to play the game as long as keeps lending him a helping hand. He is constantly amazed that just a few dedicated people can provide so much news and information to a hungry public.

Despite some opinions to the contrary, Dave likes most stuff. But he is a skeptic who constantly wonders about the world around him. So many questions, so few answers.